NO WE WON'T MOVEMENT
How we escape the Tigray war
The real war in world first PBU
Dear our families and friends,
We write to everyone at the same time because the story is tense and long.
Thank you for your care, holding your fists and all the interventions for our rescue.
We do not have clear information about your communications and help to our families, so please let us know if we owe anyone a thank you.
We managed to summarize the monthly events late yesterday afternoon.
Monday was flooded with responding to officials who tried to trigger our rescue, and it was full of calls and everything. We slept all day on Tuesday. We had to have lunch on Wednesday because we were invited by the German consul and the EU consular coordinator. Namely, they are all extremely amazed at how we managed to escape, and they wanted us to help them in further rescuing foreigners.
War in world first PBU Personal Biodiversity Unit
The drama began on the night of 3 to 4 November 2020. We had just pressed a button on our computer to launch our new site www.earthlikeme.org, and an hour later all internet, data and telephone communications were cut off. Of course, the political situation was tense months ago, but the Covid-19 war outside Tigray kept us on our pre-war safe estate in Mekelle.
As you already know, after a whole month of communication blockade and war, we only managed to carry out a daring action. Evacuation from Mekelle to Addis Ababa in uncertain times of war.
Our families told us a couple of days ago, when we finally got to communications, that you were in contact with them all the time one way or another. Thank you once again for your concern. It was very difficult, practically impossible to communicate anything. The only options were to call in person with a satellite phone from the Red Cross, far from our house in a city where a thousand people were waiting at the times Covid-19 pandemic (unfortunately the connection never worked, so useless) or to prepare a letter on paper, which was then Unicef scanned and forwarded. They did not receive any feedback or physically forward it to us.
It was difficult to predict what text would be most appropriate. We felt that we should not describe the situation too much in the letter, because we might not agree with our assessment and might not even send it. We wrote a neutral, more telegraphic text.
We couldn’t send messages often because things were changing day by day and we couldn’t always walk safely to the office. When we say offices, it doesn’t mean you enter a UN or Unicef yard and then talk in the office. No, it all takes place in front of a fence gate on a very busy road. No one is allowed to enter the yard. So we also weren’t sure if they were sending messages.
During the clashes, it was also possible to communicate with the UNHCR office or USAID, but in mid-November, Tigray’s police confiscated all satellite phones. Later, they cut all the wires. Thus, immediately afterwards, all employees from these offices were taken to safety in Addis. They no longer helped foreigners. Also from the UNICEF and UN offices, the highest officials (foreigners) ‘escaped’ to Addis. As one of them told us: "We will save the NGO workers and ourselves first, and then, if possible, foreigners."
The first week of the war
If I go back to November 4, 2020. Gere, our 'internal intelligence', came to our house the next day and said that the Tigray army had carried out a military coup on all federal military camps inside the Tigray, there were supposedly about 100 of them - unverified info … That’s when we knew we were really at war.
Two days later, on Friday, November 6, 2020, when he brought us food from downtown, all the gas stations were already closed. He secured himself for the next few weeks on the black market with a couple of gallons of gasoline.
The moment we were talking on the porch in the middle of a sunny afternoon, it rumbled over the house a MIG jet fighter and we all bowed in fear. A few seconds later, we heard a drumbeat in the distance - he dropped rockets on the northern edge of town. Two days later, Gere said Tigray tv reported that he had been shot down. The next day, all the banks were closed.
So we had to exchange euros and dollars on the black market, which we almost forgot somewhere in our wallets, fortunately we had for hard times. And, here are the hard times :)
Two days later, there was a power outage for two days, and the federal army destroyed a transformer at Tekeze Dam. Luckily not the dam itself and the electricity was back, but the food in the fridge was already gone… The first alarm for survival.
Gere immediately advised us to save on gas and cook on electricity because gas bombs will no longer be possible to buy.
Electricity is the only source of cooking for most locals. If it is not there, you can only light a fire.
So the electricity came back in a couple of days, and apparently Tigray wasn’t sending it to Addis anymore, and we had electricity better than ever. But not for long.
In the first week of fighting on the southwestern border in the Simien Mountains, the UN did not communicate at all. No one wanted to talk to foreigners. We were not surprised because we know the Ethiopian mentality, where no one wants to take responsibility. But we were worried.
Damjan went to campus, where the ‘tribal people’ were again a month late with our documents, paying for plane tickets, etc. I first made a large two-meter SOS sign on the grass in the garden from A4 papers, which I attached to the ground with toothpicks to be seen from the satellite. World's war zones are always scanned 100% by agencies. But Dot was playing with the inscription and removing the papers, and after a couple of days we removed the inscription because we were afraid that any of the warring parties would misinterpret the inscription and launch a rocket.
In the meantime, we have already started packing a lot and preparing the house and garden for the time when we will no longer be there.
We sent Gere to buy one suitcase. We were slowly starting to realize what we were going to have to leave there, especially what saddened us the most was that we were going to have to say goodbye to the cat Dot. He is a 100% sunny cat and there is 13 months of sunshine in Tigray…
The news from Gere was that panicked tourists, including one of my former colleague, an older German, were getting into the Aksum Hotel in downtown and trying to somehow get organized to leave, but we didn’t want to go there because of the COVID 19.
The second week of the war and the first evacuation attempt
Damjan was constantly on the field, searching for information, I was preparing to evacuate the property.
After a week, it was finally agreed that the UN would now start collecting data (personal documents) from foreigners in Tigray. This means that you had to walk around the city by yourself (because there was no more petrol for Damjan to take Gere with bajaj) to the office and hand over a copy of the passport and then walk there every day if they may have already published the passenger list and date for the next UN convoy to Addis Ababa.
There were no hanging yellow bunches of bananas for several days, all the other fruit in the shops run out, and finally the shops were closed.
If, after the first roaring MiG jet fighter, it was fairly calm, and the news from Tigray was getting worse, we experienced another attack on Nov. 14 in the middle of the day. A fighter plane was heard again and the rocket fell into downtown near the Caribbean restaurant, which we regularly visited before the pandemic. Two men died. The federal army reportedly wanted to bomb the main police station, but there were allegedly Eritrean pilots on the planes who did not want to hit the target. These pilots were later fired by Isaias Afwerki, they were no longer allowed to fly. Rumour has it that Eritrean soldiers were forced into battle - whether you go to fight or shot in the head.
In this situation, also drove the first convoy, but it was ‘forced’ and totally panicked (due to the pressures of tourists who came to Ethiopia on holiday during the COVID-19 time !?). Ethiopians, however, are inexperienced in such a situation. In addition, they announced that the convoy would take only 50 km to the Afar region to the east, where they would get out and send us on few kilometres long walk (in a depression where it is hot as hell with 15 kg luggage) and board back into the new composition. This, of course, was not acceptable to us. Namely, we know how they do not know how to properly organize, in terms of security, even tourist trips, let alone evacuations from the war.
Yesterday, at a meeting with the German consul, we learned that they had travelled for 4 days, that they had slept in military camps, and that some people who were in convoys were even missing…
Ethiopia, meanwhile, has asked Somalia and Sudan to help them fight the Tigray ‘terrorists’, but both have refused because they already have too many problems at home to send troops elsewhere. Well, we took a break for a moment. However, in the following days, happened what everyone feared. Neighbouring Eritrea also entered the war. At the request of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, they began attacking Northern part of Tigray. Far from us, but that was bad news. The Tigrayans and Eritreans have not understood each other since the last war between them, although they fought together against dictator Mengist decades ago. Abiy made good use of it. In the far distance, the drumming of war could be heard these days.
At the end of the second week of the war, we decided it would be best if we tried to evacuate with a car and an experienced driver. Gere suggested E, whom he has known since before, when Damjan and I went to a land research to buy land. In this war of confusion, Gere managed to find him and we met, made a plan and first tried to evacuate on Sunday 22 Nov 2020. Damjan had obtained a permit from the police a few days earlier at the time under the Tiger government to travel through Agula. The landscape of Tigray is very rugged and hilly, so the only possible move is along the main roads. On the Saturday afternoon before the scheduled departure on Sunday, Gere comes to our house and announces that E. is in fear and if we can leave in a couple of hours. We weren’t ready and we also had permission for Sunday. So we postponed the departure to an earlier hour at 6am start. Packing the car for 1 hour to tie everything to the roof, we had 8 suitcases. We said goodbye to Dot, neighbour Genet, and Gere.
We first tried the road through Agula, which in quiet times is a classic scenic route to the Danakil Desert. On the way we saw a pair of armed troops in the landscape, getting lost in the green. When we arrived at the third Tigray military checkpoint, we were informed that the road was blocked by a fallen MiG jet fighter. We turned around, lost about two hours, and tried another possible road to Afar through Ashegoda. It was only at the Fifth Military Control that we were informed that the permit we had was not good for them and that we had to re-enter Quiha, a small settlement next to Mekelle. E. was furious as a lynx. The Tigray bureaucracy knows no bounds and the limits of good taste when it is enough. Since it was Sunday, the police chief was having coffee and we had to wait for him to write a new permit. After about an hour and a half, we were back at point zero and started our way towards Ashegoda. All of us, hoping that it would be easy now, calmly passed the baggage check at the checks, which was not too detailed. When we started the descent into the depression and the serpentines started, E. said we might be only two kilometres to the Afar border. We are all excited to make turns and after the next one, we see a giant excavator pushing meter-long stone boulders and blocking the road. In the distance we see one such blockade. E. immediately goes into action and asks the head of the implementation of the blockade to remove one rock and let us through. He promises him a full payment, but he won't. But all is In vain. When we get out of the car, he tells us with a smile that this is an order from the ‘owner’, and that there is a bigger embankment miles away. Our hope dies in a second, and we all think about for how many minutes or hours we missed our salvation. The Tigray Army gave the order to block the road so that the federal army would not be able to access Mekelle.
The other two roads, directly south through the Alamata or Lalibela, were too dangerous, with heavy fighting taking place there, according to Gere. All possibilities were closed to us. After a whole day of driving and trying, we were forced to go back to our house in Mekelle and live in suitcases until the next try. Well, it wasn't bad :) We were just ready to leave in an hour, if necessary or a new opportunity will present itself. Dot was overjoyed with our return… Gere as well.
Third week of the war
There was a third airstrike on Damjan's campus. He was there that morning and only two hours later bombs fell there. Our blood just froze in our veins. The next day, Mule, the owner of our nearest store, said the students were injured. Across the campus road is the Hawelti Military Memorial Park, which is the pride of the Tigrayans, and we figured the Federal Army wanted to bomb it, but missed it.
But this campus is 15 minutes away from our house and the situation was already boiling. The day after, the Tigray government organized a telephone line, but only within Mekelle.
One day, the whole morning, federal army fired with tanks and cannons at the outskirts of Mekelle, where the Tigray's TPLF fighters were hiding. In the afternoon, ‘ours’ returned with double measure back to government army units. Late in the evening we also heard two different sounds above the house as if they were rockets. They flew across our neighbourhood. The next day we learned that the Tigrayans had sent rockets to the military airport in Bahir Dar 450 km away. It was quite tense.
Tigray defended quite well and also recorded some victories. However, one of the smallest provinces will not be able to be in this war for long. So it happened later, that they slowly dragged themselves into the hills, and the federal army took over city after city. Mekelle was calm, but we don’t know how it was like elsewhere.
The third UN convoy to date also went that day. We did not want to join anymore because our proposal to join the UN convoy with our car and driver was twice rejected. With comments, how are we supposed to know they don’t have a bomb under the car and such nonsense?!
After two days of silence, heavy cannon fire began, around and around the city. The Tigray army sent missiles to Bahir Dar in Amhara province, the federal army in the vicinity of Mekelle. They did not target the city itself, as previously announced by the head of state, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. But the house was shaking, as was the floor. A couple of times we hid under the door jamb, which we judged to be the safest in the house. It roared for three days in a row all day from morning to evening, there was peace at night but sometimes during day the windows shook, so close was the shock wave.
We were never panicked. But slowly it all starts to get extremely tiring and we become kind of apathetic. Or you find yourself doing perhaps purely unnecessary tasks for such a time and situation, but somehow you have to disperse.
The packing was ready for the second week, as was the house. That was totally tiring. Namely, because we had to leave a lot of things there, we provided everything as a gift to Gere and Messi, who are really our friends, always ready to help.
We marked all the pieces so that after the peace they could carry things to their houses. Damjan's daytime bed Siesta moments were prepared for donation to the Atse Yohannes Museum. In addition to Dot, we were especially sorry for the infinite number of plants in the garden, which we grew for five years, and that probably no one will take care of anymore. This week, the electricity also went out forever… the house became icy cold, at least overnight, seven star heaters turned off… showering with cold water…
Damjan went around the district on a hunt for some fresh food, vegetables and fruits, we had dry food from stocks because of COVID 19. But the biggest problem became drinking water, which could hardly be bought anymore. We started to boil water to drink tea and cook with it. And the taste of everything occupied was strange… The taste of war…
The fourth week of war
The last week of November was especially tense.
In the middle of the day, when it was so roaring all day, a new scene. Suddenly, in the distance of the city, closer to our neighbourhood, we hear screams and screams. Then the shooting started in the streets, coming closer and closer and eventually reaching our street as well. We weren’t overly scared, but we mentally prepared for a possible one-on-one fight. Over the years, we have heard many times how Amharic people are very vengeful and that they don’t like Tigray people.
It was already clear that the Amharic Federal Units were coming to Mekelle, and at that moment we thought the worst was happening on the streets. In a few minutes, in addition to the shooting, trucks with soldiers drove past our house, screaming and firing. It sounded like a victory. But whose? It was hard to judge from the house. We were also ready for their intrusion into the house. We practiced a little how to ‘combat fight with a knife’ and then locked ourselves in the closet with one knife each. We hung a large white sheet over the closet door on a hanger so they might not find us.
Luckily there was no one in the house and in about an hour the shooting subsided. The same day, it is learned that the Tigray army was rejoicing because they were supposed to catch the worst federal general, who said on public television that the TPLF is a political party of the devils and needs to be exterminated. A few days later, we learned that it was not true at all, because the general himself spoke on TV that they had failed.
It slowly became clear to us how the TPLF, that is, the Tigray government party, had indeed led the horrific propaganda pressure of the last 30 years of Ethiopia’s rule. Even in these times of war, they use the same technique and mislead people to join them in the fight.
After that turbulent day, the next day was pure silence. Federal troops arrived in the city peacefully. There were no incidents. They only searched for TPLF political members and killed some thieves disguised as soldiers who were robbing houses. In short, they have indeed established some sort of order.
Unfortunately, our friend Gere disappeared that same day. We’ve known each other since the beginning and even in Covid-19 times he took care of us. Arranging matters in the city, bringing food and other necessities and bringing us information during times of conflict. We don’t know what happened, but he may have been afraid of the arrival of the government army. Since the Tigray society is preoccupied with the aforementioned story with the Amharic, he may have feared revenge killings. Or he joined the Tigray Army because he mentioned a week earlier that they might be called up. Gere is a real hero for us, because he takes care of a 5-year-old child himself, and his mother, like ‘Aleksandrinke’, has been earning money in Riyadh for many years. The next was also the interruption of telephone communication, which was temporarily established by the Tigray Government only within Mekelle. So to this day we have not been able to contact him.
There was no more water from the city either. Supposedly, the surrounding clashes destroyed the main water pipe for the city and the main transformer station. Perhaps, however, this is just a way of putting pressure on the local population. No office or service in the city has worked since the feds arrived because people don’t dare work or have fled to the surrounding villages. The shops were almost all closed, with rare exceptions. There was no electricity for 5 days. Slowly we started to run out of money and we paid in the local store with almost new ‘pillows’.
Damjan, as 'safe' as could be said during airstrikes, cannon fire and street shooting, has walked to the UN office to get some information about the convoy’s departure. I, on the other hand, guarded the house from robbers disguised in military suites.
The UN had no serious intention organizing a convoy any time soon. Knowing the mentality of Ethiopian official institutions, we knew we now had to take a step on our own.
In order not to have enough of everything, in the last days before our escape-departure, the federal troops announced that they would inspect the houses. It has been rumoured that they may also be robbed a little during this inspection. We closed our suitcases and hid as much local money as we had among the porcelain plates. In the end, no one came to our house, even though they were in our neighbourhood. Damjan was seen going into the house and we think they overestimated not going to foreigners (whites).
However, they inspected the house of our colleague, Indian professor Dr Rama and our neighbour's aunt. However, they were professional and did not destroy or steal. They reportedly inspected the walls to see if anyone had hung pictures of TPLF leaders and checked the phones data. Our house is in a better neighbourhood, quite a few politicians and also some former Tigray ambassador were our distant neighbours. Were they TPLF? Probably.
The townspeople are still afraid because they have been under severe government propaganda for 30 years. We did not hear which house was suffering, but two hotels in our vicinity, which are supposedly owned by businessmen / members of the TPLF political party, were destroyed. Desta hotel which we often visited in previous years and Nordern star hotel. They were allegedly completely emptied because the owners were unable to display clean bills.
At this time, we are again intensively considering another attempt to evacuate to Addis. This time we have a problem because we can’t get in touch with Gere, who is the only connection to E. It is an unfortunate coincidence that Gere constantly communicated with him for ease of communication, a language barrier. E-otherwise speaks a little English. We started the hunt for E.'s phone number, and luckily got it through one well-known bajaj-ar Asmerom, but the telephone stopped working the next day.
I somehow knew - sixth sense, that E. when the situation is mature will knock on our door because he knew where our house was. But Damjan was severely sceptical. The last day, just on Damjan’s birthday, he went looking for our driver. We knew roughly where he was supposed to live. He walked the whole neighbourhood and asked about it, but returned home without success.
At the Amdina Hotel, in our neighbourhood, there was a long line of people waiting to pour water into canisters. The owner of the hotel voluntarily opened his underground fountain tap and helped people. It has a generator, so there are also electric extensions on the floor in front of the hotel, where people can charge their phones, notebooks and other electronic devices for a few hours.
Luckily we have water from the tanks in the house. Because Damjan, right at the beginning of the war, when the electricity went out for the first time, suggested that we go to the laurel system for toilets and for washing dishes. So the water in the third tank on the tower remained available and we had water on the taps, where you wash your hands at least 300x a day in the age of COVID 19, available until the end.
When Damjan was walking on the streets on the last day, barriers with logs and stones were placed everywhere to prevent cars from accessing the houses. The locals have heard, we don't know where, that the Eritrean army is coming to the city, which will rob houses and cut their necks. They wanted to make it difficult for them to remove the stolen items with stones. Yes, so they were intimidated for 30 years by the Tigray government. This one had the principle that there were enemies around them and that only they could protect them. If they are chosen to run the country, however, they will have to dance the way they will play. They also propagated Eritreans as bloodthirsty avengers. All of this stems from the 3-year war with Eritrea.
Well there were no Eritreans and probably not always. Every now and then, a shot was heard in the distance, as well as a cannon grenade.
Damjan therefore did not find the driver and was already a little restless.
On the last day of our war stay, in spite of all the ‘clusterfuck’, I prepared a festive three-course war lunch on the terrace under our bushy palm tree. On a wildly decorated table with a white tablecloth to the floor, there were flowers, candles, and fruit. When he eats chard soup, and I’m just serving spaghetti with tuna sauce, someone knocks on the door.
And here's E.
It was the best gift ever… And the dessert is more technical than ever.
E. had gathered enough information these days from the locals, the federal army in the city, and a friend who had miraculously arrived the day before from Addis to Mekellle. The situation in the south of Tigray is supposed to be calm now and we can try. We decided to leave immediately the next morning.
In the evening, there was a final repackaging by candlelight. And luckily there was a little battery in Damjan's tablet so we could set our alarm at 5am. When we woke up it was dark and icy cold, and we got ready again by candlelight. We had already prepared all the food for the trip the night before. That night Dot surprisingly slept outside, and was extremely restless during our morning actions. He got the last meat two days ago, and for the last 14 days we have left him to hunt birds again due to lack of meat.
We equipped the car with the original Unicef inscription, which Damjan secretly removed from the Unicef fence last week. It seemed to him that we would need him bloodily. I punctured the pillow cover, which we attached to a stick and tied like a white flag to our Nissan jeep. At the exit of the city, where the main barracks is, the feds directed us forward. We have now seen many tanks on the outskirts of the city, the ones we have only heard of all these days. We first set off along the same road (as in the first attempt through Ashegoda), which is the shortest route from Tigray, to the province of Afar. When we got close to the border, the locals told us that the road was still blocked and additionally mined by the Tigray army. We headed back to the fork and drove along the only access road south in the direction of the city of Alamata. We did not need bureaucratic permits this time.
The first day we were most of the ride always in the territory of Tigray and E. was quite nervous. After the beautiful landscape, we kept watching for traces of the war, but they were almost invisible. Only on the descent from the hills in front of Alamata on the serpentine road were three burnt tanks, in one village - we were not military experts, but it seemed like rocket-propelled grenade thrower, also burned, and one military jeep. All this as a past temporary victory over the federal army. This battle for Alamata was presented in Mekelle by the Tiger media as a great victory over Abiy, as the Tigray army was supposed to wait for federal troops to arrive from the Amharic hills in the south into the great lowlands, where they then killed them all. They were talking about tens of thousands of soldiers who were supposed to be dumped in a cave behind excavators. The more we looked around for traces of war, the more we saw happy villagers and farmers in their daily chores, so we wonder if it wasn’t just TPLF propaganda again. The valley is otherwise very wide and this may have happened miles away. No one is known yet.
We drove for 12 hours. We had a lot of controls, but the Federal Army soldiers were very professional and didn’t cause us any problems. Maybe also because the driver is of Amharic nationality and he always said that we are professors from the University, and because we were equipped with an inscription and a flag. Shortly before the Amharic border, a telephone signal also came back. Well, it didn’t help much because all the phones were battery free.
Once we had safely left the war-torn province of Tigray and arrived in Amhara, we slept in the town of Dessi at the new Golden Gate Hotel! That was the first time we contacted our family. An unpredictable ride was waiting for us.
The second day on Sunday, after a 10 hour drive, we happily arrived in Addis and even managed to capture some tourist moments along the way (huge birds, monkey helmet, beautiful scenery).
In Addis, we stayed at a hotel we already know and they know us. So it's like being at home :)
Such is our happy story. We were certainly prepared for the worst, but we were constantly assessing the situation with a measure of common sense. With proper handling of water, gas and food supplies, we were able to survive fairly normally for at least three weeks to a month more.
Then we should live more ascetically or in ‘desert way’, but always far from hunger or health-threatening conditions. Due to our knowledge of the situation and Ethiopian society, our sobriety and our high level of organization, as well as our happiness, we endured the whole experience with almost no consequences. We feel fine and our psychophysical condition is ok. We were most tired from the long journey.
Of course, new struggles await us. We can’t be in Addis for too long because you don’t always know how it’s going to end. Tigray is starting a guerrilla fight, there may be terrorist attacks in Addis (similar to the IRA).
Due to the war, we were left without work, home and property (we had to leave a lot of things there), and above all, without Dot and plants. We also successfully quarantined throughout the year in the least covid-19-loaded part of the world. Now, it seems, we're going to have to go to war with the virus. We are planning to move to another continent. We don't know where, but we will have to decide in the next 10 days. Where to start a new life? Europe at the triple peak of Covid 19, holidays and winter. America (with irresponsible Americans) in chaos. A difficult task awaits us.
I would ask you to keep this story to yourself for now and not share it with others until we leave Ethiopia.
For the time being, the EU Commission and the German Embassy believe that there will be no new convoy for a long time and we are the only ones who have information on the situation on the road. Yesterday, at a meeting, we were offered cooperation with the world media in Addis, but we are very sceptical about that.
Tell us how you are fighting the virus, how you are in general and how you experienced the war in Tigray.
Nice subtropical greeting with minor post Tigray syndrome
Damjan and Dominika
Damjan also wrote a short war diary, which is very experienced, and about this some other time
09 December 2020